“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
You pity those scribes and Pharisees. They were the people who were upstanding citizens, trying to do the right thing, trying to follow the law, trying to play by the rules, trying to give life their best efforts. Biblical scholars tell us the Pharisees were the progressive party. The Pharisees were the group of people who were trying to get it right, do life right, seek purity before God, to be ethical about everything in the messiness of life.
Jesus is not impressed. He tells the Pharisees they make a good show of righteousness. They even back up their mouthy opinions with their paycheck, which you have to admit is impressive, but, they — the religious people — miss the weightier matters of righteousness that need greater attention: justice, mercy and faith.
You would have thought Jesus was talking to our time. Have you not listened to the political candidates? They sing the same tired old song with the same worn out verses. Verse one: I’m conservative. Verse two: No rules for guns. Verse three: You can enjoy the benefits of our country without paying more taxes.
Where are the values of Jesus in the political drama of today? Where is the conversation about justice, mercy and love? When is the conversation going to include constructive debate about the sick, the downtrodden and the poor?
Most church people are familiar with the love chapter in the first letter to the Corinthian Church. Even if you do not memorize scripture, which most of us do not, you can probably articulate the trilogy of St. Paul from the love chapter: faith, hope and love. Jesus adds another trilogy: justice, mercy and love.
Jesus takes on the ethical people of his time and also speaks to our society. He reminds us — you and me — it is far easier for humans to argue over lesser things of the law without weighing in on justice, mercy and love. We stand condemned by his assessment. Do we not?
Jesus challenges you to think and act on a deeper level: what does justice look like in our culture? He challenges you to feel more compassion: where is mercy needed? He challenges you to act in more helpful ways: how does love find expression in the messiness of life?
Justice, mercy and love are not easily practiced. Far easier to argue and debate over less weightier matters of law. Who hasn’t felt a rise in self-importance when debating social issues when justice goes ignored? Who hasn’t allowed the need to be right to overpower mercy? Who hasn’t overlooked an opportunity to do good? Woe to us, Jesus warns.
Yet, the warning is more than condemnation. The warning is also an invitation to allow you the opportunity to explore a richer life devoted to justice and mercy and love. Let us work together to make it so.
Doug Goodwin serves as pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in downtown Sheridan.